SCOTUS Holds “Hot Pursuit” for Misdemeanors Doesn’t Always Justify Warrantless Entry into Home
In Lange v. California, 594 U.S. ____ (2021), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified when police may enter the home without a warrant. It held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always (or categorically) qualify as an exigent circumstance justifying a warrantless entry into a home.
Facts of the Case
The case arose from a police officer’s warrantless entry into petitioner Arthur Lange’s garage. Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer began to follow Lange and soon after turned on his overhead lights to signal that Lange should pull over. Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance to his driveway and entered his attached garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage. He questioned Lange and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests. A later blood test showed that Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit.
The State charged Lange with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The Superior Court denied Lange’s motion, and its appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed. It concluded that Lange’s failure to pull over when the officer flashed his lights created probable cause to arrest Lange for the misdemeanor of failing to comply with a police signal. It further stated that Lange could not defeat an arrest begun in a public place by retreating into his home. The pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant, the court held, is always permissible under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The California Supreme Court denied review.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision, holding that the “hot pursuit” doctrine will not always justify a warrantless entry into the home. “The question presented here is whether the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect always—or more legally put, categorically—qualifies as an exigent circumstance. We hold it does not,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote. “A great many misdemeanor pursuits involve exigencies allowing warrantless entry. But whether a given one does so turns on the particular facts of the case.”
In rejecting a categorical rule finding exigency in every case of misdemeanor pursuit, the Court emphasized the “centuries-old principle” that the “home is entitled to special protection.” As Justice Kagan explained, “We are not eager—more the reverse—to print a new permission slip for entering the home without a warrant.”
Justice Kagan also noted that misdemeanors run the gamut of seriousness, and they may be minor. Also, states tend to apply the misdemeanor label to less violent and less dangerous crimes.
“We have no doubt that in a great many cases flight creates a need for police to act swiftly,” she wrote. “A suspect may flee, for example, because he is intent on discarding evidence. Or his flight may show a willingness to flee yet again, while the police await a warrant. But no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight poses such dangers.”
The Court went on to conclude that the Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents point toward assessing case by case the exigencies arising from misdemeanants’ flight. “The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home,” Justice Kagan wrote. “An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency. On many occasions, the officer will have good reason to enter — to prevent imminent harms of violence, destruction of evidence or escape from the home. But when the officer has time to get a warrant, he must do so — even though the misdemeanant fled.”
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the California appeals court to reconsider the case in light of its opinion.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.